Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke
Plot: Rebecca (Palmer) returns to her childhood home to save her little brother (Bateman), from a malevolent spirit which has latched itself onto their mother (Bello).
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Lights Out is that the scares come thick and fast right from the opening three minutes. Horror is a genre that has recently started evolving quickly, realising that to survive changes had to be made. This growth has led to some of the better horrors in recent years, like the Babadook and It Follows, but it also has given birth to a new set of problems. Films like the Witch show the opposite end of the new breed of horror, where directors are so embarrassed to be horrors that they sometimes forget to be scary. David F. Sandberg’s debut feature both lifts his story above the horror tropes with meaty issues and three-dimensional characters, but never forgets that it has a very important job to do: scare and entertain the audience.
It is clear that Sandberg has spent his pre-feature years working on shorts. There is a sense of immediate thrills to Lights Out that fuels a lot of its hasty scaremongering. He establishes the threat swiftly and surely. A man wanders a factory at night, when he is attacked by a creature that can only lurk in the shadows. In a fun, yet important chase sequence, we learn everything we need to about our horror movie monster. She cannot exist when there is light on her, she can teleport anywhere in the darkness and she is a very violent creature. The movie then slows down and builds on both its monster’s fascinating origins and also its heroes. However, this does not mean the scares are relegated to later time. It is surprising just how regular the monster, who we later learn is named Diana, crops up. It gives Lights Out a dripping sense of dread throughout, because we are aware that there are not any safe moments. As long as there is a shadow, Diana can thrive. Perhaps the edge of Lights Out is harmed slightly by the over-use of Diana. While Sandberg is excellent at the jump scares, absolute horror is lacking here. Diana won’t keep many viewers awake at night, watching the shadows, like you can imagine the plan was. For one, Diana’s reign is too specific to the central characters. Another is simply the downside to revealing your baddie too early. It is the Catch 22 of horror. What Lights Out does do is give us a good, old-fashioned jump scare-fest, where shocks are genuinely intelligent and worked for. It can be hard to scare an audience so consistently, but Sandberg knows what he is doing, cleverly lining his set-pieces up and watching the audience play right into his hands. Diana might not settle in the back of your skull, but she is great when it comes to the more immediate panic attacks.
The cast help hit the horror home. The characters are risky on paper. Each one is defined by their flaws, the kind of imperfections that can quickly make an audience turn on you fast. Teresa Palmer’s heroine is a commitment-phobe, keeping her eight month long boyfriend away from any kind of emotional connection. She is there for her little brother in times of need, but you get the sense that she isn’t in it for the long haul. The little brother himself is a typical kid in a horror movie, clinging to every character out of fear and wandering around the film, playing bait to Diana. Maria Bello is also meant to be the centre of the film, the mother suffering with depression that weakens her mind and makes her susceptible to Diana’s brainwashing. She is a lot of the reason the scares are happening in the first place, meaning that her lack of resolve is a direct obstacle for our heroes. We should take this three leads and instinctively be rejecting them as our protagonists. But Sandberg writes them all with heart. Palmer and Bello are clearly trying to fight through their character flaws and their struggles make them endearing. Maria Bello might be losing the fight, but we can see the strain as she comes so close to winning her battle with her inner demons. Palmer plays the moody daughter role with just enough doubt flickering behind the eyes that we bond with her regardless of her choices. Also, it is handy having movie characters that are good in a crisis. There were quite a few moments in Lights Out where the heroes think so fast on their feet that you cannot help but be impressed. We are miles away from the dumb teenagers walking into the horror movie monster’s open arms. Lights Out won’t be the best horror you will ever see, but it is refreshingly strong.
Final Verdict: More jump scares than crippling dread, but a strong story keeps it rooted in a sense of intelligence.